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Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park: Exploring the Front Range

One of the most famous, and yet gorgeous park is the system must be Rocky Mountain National Park. The Front Range of the park has stunning scenery and a variety of trails as well as all the amenities of Estes Park.

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Explore the Front Range of Rocky Mountain National Park

The Rocky Mountain National Park despite its wilderness aura, is very accessible.

Trail Ridge Road

This is the highest continuously paved highway in the US. It’s also probably one of the most limited in terms of accessibility. It’s officially open from Memorial Day through mid-October, but the 45 mile road that connects Front Range (eastern end) Estes Park to Back Range (western end) Grand Lake can be closed early, or open later, or simply shut because of weather and driving conditions.

The road reaches at height of 12,183 feet above sea level and 11 of the miles are above the timberline (think chilly even in the midst of summer).

If you want the Trail Ridge experience without the driving, the Park offers the Trail Ridge Road Bus Tour with park staff on board (this is a fee-based activity).

There’s also the Old Fall River Road with is a one-way uphill route filled with steep grades and switchbacks. This road is open even fewer days, and the one-way nature means that once you start, you are committed to finishing the drive to the top of the Trail Ridge Road.

But enough driving, Rocky Mountain National Park offers more up close exploration. We choose the shuttle to Bear Lake and the hike that begins there. There is a half mile accessible trail to the lake, but that can be just the start of a climb so marvelous that folks coming down the trail offer encouragement to continue to the end. The trail leads from one gorgeous lake vista to the next, from Bear Lake, to Nymph Lake to Dream Lake and finally ends at Emerald Lake a total of 1.8 miles from the start, each offering its own breath-taking scenery.

The encouragement is helpful because the trail at Bear Lake starts at 9,475 feel above sea level and climbs up another 1,200 feet.

The Park offers the following caution: The hike you begin on a cloudless morning may end in a downpour. Plan to return to below the treeline before early afternoon, which usually brings thunderstorms. Snow is possible any time of year. We started and ended the hike in sunshine, but the higher we climbed, the worse the weather and Emerald Lake was shrouded in a freezing drizzle. Bring a warm jacket and hat or hood, and make sure you are wearing sturdy and well-soled shoes.

Lily Lake

While most visitors head to major Rocky Mountain National Park Visitor Center, there are trailheads scattered throughout the area that offer fine hiking without the fuss and hassle of major points of entry.

One such place is the lovely Lily Lake. Park at the Visitors Center (which has been closed down and offers no services), or cross the road and park on the west lake side (which does offer rest areas and picnic tables). Lily Lake is on Highway 7 near mile posts 6 and 7 south of Estes Park

The area offers three with varying challenges, from a gentle stroll around the lake to a strenuous mountain climb.

If you aren't used to hiking almost two miles above sea level, the Lily Lake Trail is a great introductory trail. About 1 mile along a level and well-packed path with no appreciative elevation gain it offers gorgeous views of mountains, punctuated by skittering wildlife and particularly friendly chipmunks.

In addition to the lake, views include Longs Peak to the south and Lily Mountain itself, plus the Twin Sisters.

Climb up Lily Mountain and Challenge yourself with Twin Sisters

For a bit more challenge, it’s a two-mile hike to the top of Lily Mountain (9,786 feet), and you can pick up the this trail at Lily Lake. Check the map at the lake for location information.

For a strenuous hike, the Twin Sisters trailhead starts at the visitors center (not at the lake). Beginning at the 9,090 feet elevation, this 3.7 mile trail gains over 2,000 feet as you climb, reaching a final elevation of over 11,000 feet.

Estes Park

The town of Estes Park is a spectacular destination year 'round, although it is easier to explore in the warmer months. It was founded in 1859 by Joel Estes who loved the valley and moved there, soon followed by other families. But it wasn’t officially named until 1864 when William Byers (editor of the Rocky Mountain News), decided to name the area in honor of the Estes family.

Then Oscar Stanley (of the steam-powered car, the Stanley Steamer) decided to open a luxury hotel that would feature state of the art amenities, amidst the striking beauty of the mountains. The Stanley Hotel was a great success, and the rich began flocking to the area. In order to provide power for his guests, Stanley built a hydroelectric plant. Today it is the Hydroplant Museum.

As more and more people began discovering the natural beauty, the town expanded to become one of the most popular towns on the edge of the national park, and certainly of the Front Range.

In winter, enjoy ice climbing, sledding, cross country skiing and snowshoeing. But it’s in summer that the area really attracts visitors.

You can enjoy a stroll along Lake Estes and the tiny stream that runs right through town. Sit out at one of the riverside cafes or restaurants, relax in one of the parks, and explore the shops and galleries. There’s also free musical performances in the local park. At night, do some sky gazing in the Observatory.

In summer, to reduce the traffic, the town runs free shuttle buses that link most of the hotels with downtown Estes Park. Then, from the Visitors Center, catch a free shuttle that will take you directly in to the heart of the park. From there, it’s easy to pick up the hiking trails and experience the true beauty of the park.

Tours are offered for fly fishing, horseback riding, day hikes and back packing. Birders can find organized outings, and those seeking comfort and exploration together can sign up for an off road tour. Or, just rent a boat and float on the lake.

This is truly the Rocky Mountain High.

If You Go

Lodging

We were hosted by the Baldpate Inn which offers rustic charm and comfort within walking distance to Lily Lake and its trails. There are 12 guest rooms in the lodge itself and 4 cabins, including the Pine Top honeymoon cottage. The honeymoon cottage was totally charming and steps away from the lodge. Breakfast, included in the price, was bountiful and delicious. Soup and salad bar provided light lunch and dinner.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Place, it first opened in 1917 by Gordon and Ethel Mace. Today, it’s one of the few surviving examples of the style of architecture called Western Stick. Although it must be gorgeous in winter, the Inn is open only end of May to mid-October. Check the website for opening and closing dates.

The unusual name of the property came from the mystery novel Seven Keys to Baldpate by Earl Derr Biggers. The radio play of that name is regularly broadcast in the Key Room. The Key Room itself is a charming diversion. Hanging from the walls and the ceilings are thousands of keys, they swear there are keys to Westminster Abbey, Fort Knox, and Jack Benny’s dressing room. What is certain is that there are lots of keys and it’s fun to see where they came from. In fact, the author of Seven Keys to Baldpate donated his own key to the Inn saying “This is the original key to Baldpate. All others are imitations.”

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Neala McCarten

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated: August 7, 2016



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